Two young girls sitting at desks with laptops in front of them, in a classroom with other students.

Edutainment Value: TFA Alumni at Game Startups Facilitate Learning Through Play

Catherine Pitcher (Las Vegas Valley ’08) and Riley Woods (Eastern North Carolina ’11) have built careers in the tech industry while still leaving an imprint on the way we learn.
Monday, July 25, 2016

Catherine Pitcher and Riley Woods might work for tech startups, but in reality, they both play for a living.

Pitcher, cofounder of the Bay Area-based company MonstRpreneur, has created a board game for prospective entrepreneurs who want to feel what it’s like to build a company from scratch.

“It’s exciting to be part of a team creating an experience that offers new ways to help entrepreneurs learn about how to start and grow a business,” Pitcher says, “while having a lot of fun in the process.”

On the other side of the country in Durham, North Carolina, Woods, a former art teacher, works at Personalized Learning Games, which has produced an online game called Zoo U that helps students build their social and emotional skills.

“I really loved teaching my students how to be good people, [not just] how to be good artists. That’s part of my job here,” Woods says.

The pair recently shared with us their perspectives on the startup experience, what they love most about their jobs, and how they plan to change the game (no pun intended).

How did you end up going from the classroom to a startup?

 

A woman in her thirties wearing a white sweater, making notes on a paper, white sitting at a desk across from a young student, in a classroom.

Catherine Pitcher:

I taught special education as a 2008 Las Vegas Valley corps member. I wouldn’t have been a teacher if not for TFA, and so it was a combination of my teaching experience and entrepreneurial interest that got me into game design.

Eventually, I met Kathryn Gorges and John-Michael Scott, and we founded MonstRpreneur, which makes a board game out of the challenges for those who start a new business, especially tech startups. I make sure our games are effective [in] helping those who play them achieve their goals.

Even though I’m not teaching anymore, I’m still using what I learned as an educator every day. How to build effective relationships with people is so important, and that’s something I had to do when working with my co-teachers, and especially the students I worked with, both those on my caseload and the other students in the classrooms I pushed into. Now I use that same approach with my co-founders, contractors, or other people in the industry. Also, organizational skills—if teaching doesn’t prepare you to be a manager, I don’t know what will.

Riley Woods:

A woman in her twenties with brown hair, wearing a black sweater, standing over a large statue of a fish, coloring it, in a classroom with white brick walls.

I was a 2011 Eastern North Carolina corps member, and I taught art, so I knew all the kids at my school site. I only saw my kids for 40 minutes a week, teaching 20 classes. A lot of times we didn’t even get to do the art lesson of the day because we had to do cooperation activities  [to help students develop the skills to work together. Now I’m using my TFA experience on our game, Zoo U, which is designed to strengthen kids’ social-emotional skills in the classroom and in their daily lives.

As far as what I do now, I found the job through a TFA-ENC staff member’s post on the regional social network. My now-boss at Personalized Learning Games was looking for someone with teaching experience because while the games are made by researchers and tested by game testers, they don’t have that same experience in the classroom. For example, it’s important that our dialogue is accessible for everyone, especially when you might have students learning English as a second language or students at a lower reading level who need to see the text on the screen and hear it.

As customer success manager, I work with teachers and counselors who are implementing Zoo U, setting up their accounts and gathering valuable feedback on the game. Since I have a background in art and graphic design, I’m also in charge of creating a lot of the marketing collateral.. One thing I get to do that I really enjoy is writing lesson plans that teachers can use to supplement the students’ game experience.

Neither of your games are designed solely for entertainment value. Can you each tell us more about your game and how it works?

 

Catherine:

MonstRpreneur (see video above) is able to capture what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in a board game. You have to make pitches, secure funding, and basically maximize the valuation of your startup in the shortest time possible so you can build the business of your dreams.

You’re learning as you play, and you don’t need a bunch of books or workshops to get to that same point. Our team has experience in startups, and that comes into play with the different aspects of the game to make it as authentic as possible. You do build your assets and partnerships, and you gain applicable tools that lead to basic parts of growing your own startups like agile development or growth hacking.

And what’s great about it is that you can play it more than once, because you can try various strategies to see if you can increase your valuation even more than the last time.

 

Riley:

When a student starts playing Zoo U (see video above), they make their own avatar and become a student at a fantasy school for future zookeepers.. They interact with teachers, classmates and animals, and experience social situations that they’ll see at their own schools. They have to make choices about working with other classmates or about following the teacher’s directions. The animals provide that fantasy element for the kids, to make it fun. I really like it, and I think kids love playing it.

Zoo U is now in over 200 schools across the nation, not just in North Carolina. Students are using the game in Chicago, Sacramento [California], Texas, all over. We also have another game coming out in the fall called Hall of Heroes that has to do with the transition to middle school.

 

What do you love most about what you do now?

 

Catherine:

It’s exciting to be part of a team creating an experience that offers new ways to help entrepreneurs learn about how to start and grow a business, while having a lot of fun in the process. I think about when I play the game myself, and I learn about my own risk tolerance when I’m on the “Moment of Truth” spaces, where you have to make tough decisions.

And in terms of the current company, we just completed another game that’s in testing. We’re looking forward to launching that this year.

 

A smiling woman in her thirties wearing a white blouse, sitting at a round table with a board game on it, in a grey and white room with white curtains.

Riley:

Recently I’ve been able to incorporate some of the things I was doing as a teacher by creating a free classroom management resource and supplemental lesson plans.. I love art, but teaching art wasn’t necessarily my favorite part of being an art teacher. Rather, I really loved teaching my students how to be good people, [not just] how to be good artists. That’s part of my job here—creating lesson plans that I think can help students improve those social-emotional skills, and I love that. That’s why I took the job.

Also, I love education, and I probably wouldn’t have decided to get into teaching if weren’t for TFA. I think of the experiences I had. I grew up in a town that was predominantly white, then moved to North Carolina, which is vastly different from Massachusetts. Just being with my kids has formed my perception of our country and the people that live here and set me on a track to be an advocate for education. I don’t think I’d have this same mind-set for the students who play our game if not for my experience with TFA.

A smiling woman in her twenties with long brown hair standing at a desk coloring, in a large common room with other students at various desks and couches.

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